Church Ladies Gone Wild!
May 15, 2006 11:50 AM   Subscribe

ChurchFilter:I don't know if I should stay with this congregation or cut my losses and find a new parish...

Last year I posted about some issues I was having with our church website, and how one member of our congregation constantly had issues with the site. I got some good technical advice, but more importantly, I got confirmation that SHE was the issue, rather than my web skills.

For whatever reason, this woman has a problem with me. Call it insecurity, unwillingness to change, whatever, but in the year and a half that she and I have served on our Vestry together, she hasn't let a meeting go by without some kind of dig, or nasty comment, or temper tantrum. Every time she has acted out in one of these meetings, she has been calmed down by someone in a "Now, now, don't get all excited, dear" sort of way, while I sit there with mouth agape, reeling from whatever she just said to me, or about me. Attempts to defend myself have been met with "Ok ladies, let's not do this here. Everyone's opinions are valued, so let's all just get along."

I've told the Rector many times that she makes me uncomfortable, hurts my feelings and seems to be thwarting my ability to actually do my job and he has managed to be simultaneously sympathetic to me and defensive of her("that's just the way she is, don't take it personally")

This past week we had a meeting where she finally completely lost it with me. A few people started to speak up for me, but the Senior Warden quickly smoothed over everything as he is wont to do and moved on. As soon as the meeting ended I told him "I'm not putting up with this anymore" and hightailed out of there.

The next day both he and the Rector spoke to her and told her her behavior was unacceptable. Next month they're going to lay down "behavior guidelines" for the Vestry, as though we've all been bad little kids! The Rector told me that "she should apologize, but I know she won't" and I again feel totally unsupported. All that will happen is that she will resent me even more and instead of bitching at meetings will bitch behind the scenes.

I have been happy in this congregation otherwise, and have put a lot of work into outreach and marketing (or trying to, anyway!). My husband is fed up and wants to go to another church, but I so much prefer going to a church in our community (there are no other churches in our denomination in this town). I don't know what to do.
posted by Biblio to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Cut and run.

Given what you've said, and the broader context, I think this person is probably capable of ignoring whatever argument/evidence/rules you can muster for your position/work/whatever (I'm not clear from the post what it is you actually do) and will continue to think/behave as she is doing.

Some people are just not nice.
posted by tiamat at 12:02 PM on May 15, 2006

On the other hand, it seems every church has its fair share of curmudgeons. Our church is considering leasing out our parking lot to a developer to build condos- the final consideration hasn't started yet, and already the fight is getting nasty. ::shrugs:: That's just church politics for you (really, any organization politics). If she's only going to be bitching about you behind the scenes from now on, maybe you won't have to hear about it and you can stand it? You and your husband have to balance all factors out and decide what's worth it. Rough. I don't envy you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:09 PM on May 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think it would be a shame for you to leave your congregation because of one person. Have you tried to talk to her about her issues with you? I don't mean placating her or apologizing for something you didn't do. Talk to her privately and say "What's your problem?" If she has a semi-legit beef, work it out. If not, perhaps a face-to-face confrontation will embarrass her into silence.
posted by clh at 12:10 PM on May 15, 2006

If leadership is not willing to draw a line and inform her her behavior is unacceptable, I would agree with your husband and go elsewhere. Part of leadership includes such and they are simply wimping out.
posted by konolia at 12:31 PM on May 15, 2006

From a theological perspective, having a dispute with one member of a congregation hardly seems to be a good reason for leaving. When you leave you're also depriving the other member of the congregation of your perspective and services.

I don't know what the other person's problem is, but it is ssomething that the reverend/priest should take care of. It's largely his responsibility to take every reasonable measure to keep from disharmony affecting the congrgation. Maybe one or both of you need to be taken off of the Vestry. But if they've just gotten around to putting the offending party in her place, at least see how it works out before leaving.

"Every church has its fair share of curmudgeons." That is very, very true. You stay at any church long enough and you'll heva problems. Best to figure out how to work through them.
posted by Heminator at 12:37 PM on May 15, 2006

What actual damage could she do? (Real question, not rhetorical.) It sounds as though everyone that works with her, and maybe everyone in the congregation, knows she's not all there, and won't take her bitching seriously.
posted by mendel at 12:41 PM on May 15, 2006

I admit I have nothing particularly constructive to suggest, but I just want to interject that I am fascinated that, even in a church you get that "Everyone's opinions are valued" routine. I would think a church would be one of those places where someone could lay down the law and say "this is right, that is wrong."

And frankly, someone in a position of responsibility needs to do that here. You don't need to abandon the church, but it seems you could take a less active role in it. That would be letting the other woman win (perhaps until she starts picking on someone else, who then follows your lead, etc, and after a while someone really will do something), but if you can't get satisfaction any other way, it could be a sanity-preserving move.
posted by adamrice at 1:10 PM on May 15, 2006

Find another commitee to serve on that your rector agrees she won't be a part of
posted by Pressed Rat at 1:17 PM on May 15, 2006

This is a much bigger issue than the person described here. She is being allowed to be disrespectful, disruptive, and dismissive. This shouldn't be allowed in a church setting. Does your church have any kind of "covenant of relations?" Mine does, and it specifically spells out things such as respectful communications (no interrupting, no name-calling, no triangulation [talking about and not to people. Maybe you can suggest that these "behavior guidelines" be adopted by your group (is it a Board, or Committe) as your covenant with one another? Then it's not about misbehaving, it's about how you agree to treat one another. Here's one such covenant (from the UUA website):
We will communicate openly, honestly and respectfully. We will listen carefully with open minds and open hearts. We will assume good intentions, practice tolerance and resist the temptation to become offended. We will take responsibility for our speech, actions and feelings, and we will be sensitive to possible conflicts and willing to work toward solutions. We will consider other perspectives and will strive not for unanimity but for mutual respect. We will honor our own boundaries and the boundaries of others. We will respect and support the diversity within our congregation and work to foster a welcoming environment.
That example may be a little too woo-woo for you, but this gives you an idea of how things are done in other churches - maybe your denomination has similar guidelines? Best of luck.
posted by dbmcd at 1:18 PM on May 15, 2006

My husband is fed up and wants to go to another church...

Just to clarify: solely because of how you're being treated, or are there other things about this particular church that he's tired of?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2006

From a theological perspective, having a dispute with one member of a congregation hardly seems to be a good reason for leaving. When you leave you're also depriving the other member of the congregation of your perspective and services.

This is one of my chief issues with leaving.

I am, officially, the "Outreach Coordiator" a Vestry position that I suggested, upon hearing from congregants that they often had no idea who was doing what, or who to contact with ideas. The idea was that folks involved in outreach projects, like the prayer shawl ministry or the food pantry, would report their activities/requests/issues to me. I would bring this report to the Vestry, deal with any issues there (ie the youth group needs money for a VCR, or the Brownie troop keeps using the Bible Study Group's supplies) and keep the congrgation as a whole apprised of what was going on with our ministry groups. This is an elected, volunteer position. In truth, what has happened is that the outreach groups would rather remain anonymous and people are under the expectation that I am going to do everything myself.

When I attempt to address some of the dysfuncytional organizational and communication issues by suggesting say, drawing up an org chart or designating a fundraising chair or a publicity committee, the general attitude is "we're a small parish, we don't need to complicate things." Small and getting smaller, because people like me with real-world experience in communications or marketing or management are frustrated by the half-assed way of doing things and the absolute unwillingness to change how things have been done, whether they work or not.

Our priest is a lovely man, who speaks very movingly about love and acceptance and forgiveness but who seems unable to do any heavy lifting in terms of the poor, the lonely and the lost. I am itching to DO something and he wants to dialogue some more. (Was divinity school in the 60s really wishy washy?) There is a vast disconnect between the sermons and the actual activities of our parish, most of which center around fundraising for ourselves.

As for Mrs. Cranky, she seems to have, despite her reputaton, gotten in with the group that does the fairs and bazaars and bake sales. They are all apparently upset that I did not volunteer at the last fundraiser, because that's outreach, too. I think she'll continue her tirades against me and will influence other people.

Most of all, I'm hurt. Hurt that it took 18 months for anyone to say anything to her, despite the fact that they knew I was hurt. No one has ever asked her what her problem is, or offered to mediate between us, or even asked us to pray for a resolution of some kind. She's simply been given a free pass to behave badly.
posted by Biblio at 1:37 PM on May 15, 2006

PinkStainlessTail, my husband calls it the Church of the Low Expectations and as a business type of guy he is frustrated by the incompetence he's been privvy to via my experience. He is of course not happy with the way I've been treated.
posted by Biblio at 1:41 PM on May 15, 2006

Your next church may also have someone who uses hurt feelings and "sensitivity" to bully people. If you leave, will you always feel as if you should've stood your ground? Is there another church that you feel drawn to?

Have a heart to heart with the pastor, rector or other spiritual leader. It's wrong to allow one person to bully others. If you do leave, they should understand why. Whether you stay or go, they should approach the bully with compassion and a firm, No Bullying. Period. stance.
posted by theora55 at 1:53 PM on May 15, 2006

Your clarification only strengthens my initial position of "cut and run".

1) You don't get alone with one of the well conntected little old ladies
2) they don't seem to get anything done, and you'd like to get stuff done
3) they don't seem to want to learn how to get anything done, and you want to enable them to get stuff done (see 2)

You probably can't do anything about any of these issues, and trying is likely to cause you more stress than it's worth.

Not only that, but if you leave you'll probably be making it easier on the other people - whether they're right to be bothered by you or not, you DO seem to be bothering them, so you'll also be being nice to them in a roundabout sort of way if you leave.
posted by tiamat at 1:56 PM on May 15, 2006

Every group of people larger than two has a jerk in it, Churches are no different. Either, deal with this woman's anger yourself or give up the position, but changing to another church will probably put you in the same spot with a new group of peole. A church is very much a social dominance hierarchy (whether you like it or not), get in this woman's face and stand your ground. Nobody will think less of you for it, they just don't want to confront her themselves.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:58 PM on May 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

PinkStainlessTail, my husband calls it the Church of the Low Expectations and as a business type of guy he is frustrated by the incompetence he's been privvy to via my experience. He is of course not happy with the way I've been treated.

Then it sounds to me like you've both got more than enough reasons to leave this congregation for another. I understand not wanting to give up, but it sounds like you are being prevented from doing some real good by unresolvable issues here.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:01 PM on May 15, 2006

Do you like where you are? You say you do. If so then stay and fight it out with the old biddy. You have allowed her to treat you like this for 18 months? It is time to put a stop to her behavior and it is time for you to stop looking for someone else to stop it for you. You are a woman. Let her hear you roar. Let loose some of that indignant self righteous anger. Tell her you're mad as hell and you're not gonna take it anymore. Pretend you are Jesus and she is a money changer in the temple. Let her have it.
posted by Shalerman at 2:19 PM on May 15, 2006

she seems to have, despite her reputation, gotten in with the group that does the fairs and bazaars and bake sales.

This sounds so much like our school's PTA that it would be funny if it weren't sad. A group of cliquish women who volunteer and do good things, but only on their own terms and they'll only let you in to play if you will play by their rules and make nice to them. A perceived slight against one of them causes them all to rally round and attack the offending outsider. I suspect it is true of many organizations that are mainly run by volunteers.

Managing this kind of group is tricky and if the person who is supposed to be in authority won't lead, things are much harder on the people who want to work to get things done. The only way I know of dealing with this situation is to make your self indispensable and slowly gather as much control and as many people to your side as you can by a mixture of efficiency, diplomacy and guile. In the end you may be able to marginalize the unhealthy elements, though you are unlikely to be able to get rid of them. It is a long strategy, and takes a thick skin.

If you don't like those sorts of situations leaving might be a be a better option, but there is a definite possibility that a new congregation will have similar characters and dynamics.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:35 PM on May 15, 2006

Do you feel that the issue is just this one woman, or the whole group that passively supports her?

The answer might influence your decision.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:46 PM on May 15, 2006

I don't think this is so much about every church/school/workplace/whatever having its share of difficult individuals (or even difficult cliques) and simply learning how to deal with them. In Biblio's own words, this place is fundamentally dysfunctional at an organizational level, from the logistics of simply getting things done to figures of authority refusing to step in and put an end to bullying. Those are not factors that will be solved by a simple "what's your problem" discussion/confrontation, nor are they factors that will necessarily be present in another parish.

Combined with the more general discontent you feel, Biblio ("there is a vast disconnect between the sermons and the actual activities of our parish, most of which center around fundraising for ourselves"), I think that despite the convenience of attending this particular church, you may simply have reached the point where you need to move on.
posted by scody at 5:57 PM on May 15, 2006

Have you prayed about the situation? I don't mean the "Lord remove this woman prayer", but a sincere prayer for guidance on handling the situation. Lord help me with MY temperament, patience in dealing with this situation. Help me to have favor if I’m right. Help me have the right attitude towards my sister. Use my mouth not as a weapon to tear down, but as a voice to speak praises and build a bridge. Have you tried to take this person to lunch and find out what the root of the issue is? Don’t listen to the advice on cutting your losses and running from the situation. That’s what’s wrong with today’s “religious” Christians always running from a fight when the bible teaches use to “pray for our enemies” and to resort to niceness. The scripture says being nice to our enemies is like dumping hot coals on their head.

Being in youth ministry for 13 years I’ve had my share of parent’s rants and raves and being told that they hated me or resented me because I had to discipline their child or had a better relationship with them. I just turned the other cheek and got on my knees and prayed for a solution to the situation. I’ve even apologized to the people I’ve done nothing wrong too to help the situation smooth over and those parents have become my biggest supporters. This is a spiritual battle being fought in the fresh. The devil would like nothing more than to divide your church and keep it preoccupied with inner bickering instead of reaching souls.

Get away from the religious fleshly advise and think like a Christian (to be Christ like), but honestly “What would Jesus do?” He would make things right. So pray about the situation. Face this bump in the road head on. Ask the Lord to give you the right words to say when speaking to this person. Try to work things out between you and her. Like I stated before take her to lunch be very frank with her. Be nice, but get your point across. Let her know your true feelings. If you’ve been hurt let her know. Like my wife tells me “it’s all in the presentation” Why should you leave a church that you love. If you want to do the Christian thing then work hard to mend this relationship.

If you decide to leave don’t make the mistake of moving on before making things right with her. Free yourself of the baggage and bitterness that has attached itself to you and your husband. If you don’t let go the same thing will happen at the church down the road. Talk to her before you leave and be honest with her and yourself. Give her the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and you do the same with her. Turn the other cheek, if the conversation doesn’t work out. Remember she will always carry this around in her life as well, even if she is not receptive to idea of forgiving you at least you did your part scripturally to clear up the situation and be ready to make Heaven your home.
posted by johnd101 at 9:31 AM on May 16, 2006

I agree another congregation might be a better fit, but if you decide to stay, try changing your tactics. Be more strategic about how you try to get what you want. If you think of it in marketing terms, you have a very specific target audience here.

It sounds like the pastor (?) and everyone wants people to rise above their personal feelings and be "nice," quashing legitimate hurt and anger in the name of turning the other cheek. Self-denial and conflict avoidance is so pervasive in religious contexts that even healthy self protection may seem like selfishness or pettiness, or make people uncomfortable. They just want to be holy and clean.

So, I'd phrase all your comments and suggestions from the moral high ground, don't "dirty" them with anything as "messy" as personal feelings. No one will risk seeming "mean" to her just to protect you. For God, or the church, or to be proper, though? Maybe. To get them on your side, you have to claim the moral high ground.

So, you might express your discomfort with her in charitable terms like, "That poor woman, she's been dealing with so much, but (discrete whisper:) I do think it might sometimes keep her from acting in the true christian manner that I know she aspires to." "Maybe she should be relieved of some of her duties after so many years of service." Brush off personal slights and focus on the problems it causes for others besides yourself, like, "She's really been struggling, I know she didn't mean her comment to me personally, but I do think outbursts like that affect other members who are more sensitive than I am, and this sort of animosity might be keeping some people away from services." Don't talk about what you want, talk about what is right and wrong, like, "I just think that some people (ahem) make hateful comments and provoke dissent among us, and that this really shouldn't go on within our congregation." You could even play off their "oh, ladies," angle by regretfully having to pass along that in private she "can be downright nasty (!)" as though you're embarrassed, but you feel the men really must know what goes on in the ladies sitting room. Another useful phrase is "I hate to be petty." Because of course, you're trying to rise above your personal feelings, and your concern is only for others, the weaker ones, the church as a whole, God's teachings, and establishing a climate of proper Christian morals.

Not "I feel hurt." Valid? Honest? Psychologically healthy? Yes. Strategic? Maybe not.

Then -- in those other areas of service like helping the poor -- you may have to become the moral leader, promoting your ideas in terms like "God's work" or "double our efforts to feed the hungry," you get the picture. (Then hint to the fundraisers that this will attract other "more active" or "more professional" or "younger" churchgoers, whatever group they might presume would tithe more.)

I'm sorry you're having to deal with this, and I'm not suggesting you be truly dishonest or underhanded, just that you translate your feelings into certain kinds of messages that might work.
posted by salvia at 1:09 PM on May 16, 2006

If you're going to leave anyway, might as well start getting in digs of your own. People like this love to dish it out; they can rarely take it. Bullies survive on people not fighting back.
posted by effugas at 11:12 AM on May 17, 2006

Such good advice here, everyone! I am truly impressed by the thoughtfulness of the replies.

I have resign from the vestry, but continue as a member of the parish and continue with 3 specific projects I am currently involved in. My family and I will reexamine the situation periodically to decide if this is working.

When I write my letter of resignation to the vestry, I will be careful to use language that takes the focus off me and puts it on the church and its mission.

As for Mrs Crankypants, She will probably feel as though she has won something when I resign. So be it. Maybe the vestry will get more done without me there, and that can't be a bad thing.

Thank you again, all of you!
posted by Biblio at 7:09 AM on May 18, 2006

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